"It's a childhood dream."
That's why 23-year-old Kellianne May of Brandon turned up at a suburban hamburger restaurant and LGBTQ nightclub to see Aaron Carter perform a sold-out show on Thursday.
"It's like revisiting our childhood. He's all of our childhood crushes," said Chelsea Holmes, 27, also from Brandon, with a big group of like-minded girlfriends.
Like many of the several hundred people who packed the Hamburger Mary's in Brandon — mostly groups of women — they'd paid $10 and traveled a couple miles for a quick dip in the nostalgia bath. In and out.
The guy they'd come for, however, had traveled a much greater distance, despite being just a few miles from home himself. The last decade-plus has seen Aaron Carter journey from playing arenas for thousands to this small club near his hometown where he recently moved back. Bankruptcy, addiction, Dancing With The Stars. That all came and went.
Carter, the younger brother of Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, rose to fame in the early 2000's and has taken a somewhat troubled track ever since. In July, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and marijuana possession. Carter said he is licensed for medical marijuana for anxiety. The incident led to a public Twitter back-and-forth with Nick Carter, shedding light on their family tension.
Thank you ALL for your prayers & well wishes. I am so sorry to all my fans that I missed. The truth will come out! Read my statement here: pic.twitter.com/XaiKqUeXxh— Aaron Carter (@aaroncarter) July 17, 2017
Given all that and more, Thursday night wasn't just any nostalgia trip for the singer. Aaron Carter, 29, was new. Newly single. New music. New public sexual identity, even.
Once the club's nightly drag show ended with some bearded guy winning a free drink in the crowd-judged twerk contest, Carter was free to take the stage to prove all that, and he did.
"Yes, I am a bisexual man," Carter announced after his first song of the night.
It was clarification of a headline-making tweet he sent last week, an open letter explaining he'd been attracted to males and females as a kid, but stopping short of saying the word "bisexual."
It still wasn't the most genuinely emotional moment of the night. That distinction goes to when he cried.
It was right after he debuted a brand new song, Don't Say Goodbye, dedicated to his "most recent ex."
The crowd was feeling it. People were cheering. Not nearly as much as they screamed their heads off when he performed a remix of his pre-pubescent hit I Want Candy, or his 2000 smash Aaron's Party, mind you, but that didn't seem to matter.
This was new music he'd written and produced himself (as he continually reminded the crowd), and people were feeling it in 2017.
"I just want to say thank you for believing in me again," he said, his voice quaking and tears filling his eyes. He tried to speak again, wiping his eyes. "Let's move on to the next one," he barely choked after the crowd encouraged him with chants of "Aaron, Aaron, Aaron."
This is Aaron Carter performing at Hamburger Mary's circa 2017. pic.twitter.com/nia7oSdKkV— Christopher Spata (@SpataTimes) August 11, 2017
Carter played about a half dozen other new songs, all melodic dubstep inflected electropop, all dedicated to his "new ex," his "ex-ex" or to a "rebound" from his "old ex." Some were from his recent EP, Love, some were from an album he said is coming in the fall. All of them sounded right at home in the modern music landscape.
He peeled off his white T-shirt to proudly reveal a thin, tattooed frame, and said, "Don't body shame me. I know I'm skinny," a reference to another new wrinkle in the A.C. identity since he went on Entertainment Tonight recently and opened up about body image issues and an eating disorder. Carter has said at 19, he was diagnosed with a hiatal hernia.
"Don't worry about what anyone says, girl. We're skinny and sexy," he said to someone in the crowd.
A security guard in a tactical vest stood on the stage a few feet away from him throughout the show.
He sang, but often with a recorded voice track. His voice sounded decent, but the sound quality in the club was bad at times. He alluded to an upcoming appearance on Dr. Phil's daytime TV series The Doctors. Maybe that's related to his recent mysterious surgery, the one that landed him on TMZ when he hopped on a tour bus and told random people about it.
He pulled a woman onstage and danced with her seductively for a few seconds. Then he pulled a man on stage, leaned in close, and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
He autographed a magazine from his boy heartthrob days, kissed it, and gave it back. He freestyle rapped. He did a backflip and didn't quite stick the landing.
He talked about his love of Florida, with its zero income tax, and said that he loved living in Ruskin. He pointed out a pair of women in the crowd he'd gone to school with there, but hadn't seen since they were all about 9.
So overwhelmed right now with the love and energy from you tonight Tampa! #LØVË pic.twitter.com/HWRmIjuxlB— Aaron Carter (@aaroncarter) August 11, 2017
He said his catchy new song, Sooner or Later, was in the top 40 on radio, which was inaccurate, and also that it has more than 63 million streams on Spotify, which was accurate. He closed out the night with that one (a handful of people even knew the words), followed by Aaron's Party, which had people standing on chairs and tables.
That high note would have been an obvious place to stop for a lot of artists, but instead he told the crowd he wanted to play them some of his instrumental beats, which he did, from a MacBook, while air drumming. As people slowly started to filter out, a guy who'd been on stage taking video leaned in to say something to him.
"I've got about 13 more beats to play, though," Carter told the crowd proudly, even turning the laptop around so the crowd could see the screen, but shortly after that, the security guard came over and put his hand on Carter's back and they turned and headed toward the dressing room where the meet-and-greets would take place.
For Carter to be playing a LGBTQ-friendly club right after he'd opened up publicly about his sexuality seems like purposeful timing, but it may have been more of a product of Carter's local roots.
Jeremie Cruz, who manages Hamburger Mary's, said it happened after he discovered Carter's family are regulars at the place.
The family was there celebrating Carter's sister's birthday recently, Cruz said, when Carter won the night's first round of drag queen bingo. That's when other diners and Cruz realized it was Carter, which got a big response from the restaurant.
Cruz said he decided to try to book him for a show, and Carter agreed.